When there’s conflict with your senior pastor

Conflict with senior pastorThis year at the Simply Youth Ministry Conference, Mark Riddle is teaching a seminar titled, The Disconnect: Bridging the Gap Between Senior Pastor/Youth Pastor Relationships. Mark is a church consultant who works with churches and youth groups around the country, so he’s seen this story play out in many different ways multiple times.

I know the senior pastor/youth pastor relationship can often be an awkward and difficult one, so I asked Mark a couple questions about it for those of us who can’t attend the conference.

And just FYI, the Simply Youth Ministry Conference is sold out, but if you get on the waiting list soon there’s a good chance you’ll still be able to attend. Or, if you can only attend Friday, there’s a 1-day option for $99 if you just want to do the pre-conference, of which Mark’s seminar is a part.

TIM: Through all of your consulting with churches across the country, what are the most common reasons for conflict between youth pastors and senior pastors?

MARK: Most senior pastors and youth pastors have conflict for two common reasons. The first is relational. If there isn’t a relationship it opens to door to significant problems in the future. The second is systemic. That is to say, that the senior pastor and the youth pastor are pawns within the tsunami of expectations, behavior patterns and interrelationships of everyone and everything within the community. In other words, the senior pastor and youth pastor play the roles the system expects them to play. That may come off as fatalistic, or negative, but I see it as the opposite. The system is the problem in most churches and it’s no different for the staff. Understanding it allows us to change it. Yes, God changes and transforms his church, however, most churches don’t think systemically and their culture becomes a barrier to real change.

TIM: What common mistakes do youth workers make when addressing conflict with their senior pastor?

MARK: I don’t think most youth workers really seek to understand the situation from the senior pastor’s perspective. They make assumptions about what is actually happening and misread the motives and actions of the senior pastor. Of course it goes both ways. Ask, What problem is my senior pastor really trying to solve with this suggestion? Be curious. really seek to understand. Most solutions that come from top of an organization only perpetuate the problems they try to solve, so asking this question will help. It’s also helpful for you to remember as a leader at the top of your part of the organization.

TIM: How can a youth worker best address areas of conflict with their senior pastor?

MARK: It never hurts to suspend your agenda and become an advocate for the senior pastor, asking questions to fully understand what’s happening from the senior pastor’s perspective.

TIM: Is it ever appropriate for a youth worker to bring other voices into a conflict with their senior pastor? If so, when? And how do you it in a God-honoring and respectful way?

MARK: There are no real rules for this kind of thing. Walking the line of respecting your pastor, honoring their role and being faithful to the people you lead is a very emotional and difficult path to take. There isn’t a universal yes or no to that question. There are no perfect ways to navigate conflict that has risen to that level. You can only act with integrity given the circumstances and do what you think is best.

TIM: When push comes to shove, senior pastors usually win. How can youth workers work with their senior pastor so a “push and shove” situation never arises in the first place?

MARK: Deep down we know that senior pastors are human. They have flaws, they have insecurities, they have hidden motivation that they might not even be aware of themselves. With that in mind, it means that there are times when you need to be a pastor for your pastor. This won’t happen if your senior doesn’t respect you, but it might if you live into that role with them. Most youth pastors I know flip a switch when they walk into their pastor’s office. They turn on the employee/boss relationship, which assumes your pastor has all the answers. You can be an employee and a pastor to your pastor. Try asking pastoral questions to your pastor, questions you might ask your students. “How are you doing? I know it must be hard right now, is there anything I can pray for you about?”

Mark Riddle is the author of the book, Inside The Mind Of Youth Pastors: A Church Leader’s Guide to Staffing and Leading Youth Pastors. He blogs at and is the founder of The Riddle Group.

Posted on February 16, 2011

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